Spring training: Washington Nationals' wait for a winning team shouldn't last much longer

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2011; 11:54 PM


The Washington Nationals wanted so much more. They're better and they know it. But after years of low hopes, small budgets and mountains of losses, they were so close, at least in their own eyes, to being a winning team that the idea of another year of waiting, of developing talent and anticipating a much brighter 2012, just chaps them.

The Nats are probably not yet a winning team, as they dreamed of being when they ladled out $127 million for Jayson Werth 10 weeks ago. Too many of the rest of their offseason dice ended up rolling wrong. They didn't get what they wanted most - top pitching. But by aiming high, they finally ended up being a genuinely interesting ball club. For now, let that suffice.

Sometimes, you need to step way back. Less than two years ago, the Nats were so low they were barely part of the big leagues. Now, when the greatest player in the game, Albert Pujols, and his Cardinals can't agree on a contract extension, what town gets rumored as the place he might spend the second half of his career? Washington. And nobody laughs.

The odds are astronomically against Pujols ending up in D.C. He'll probably stay in St. Louis. The Nats are still two years away from being a good enough team for a title-hunting superstar to choose as home. But that's the point: The Nats may now be a couple of years away, not an eternity.

The Nats need a pitching ace, plus another slugger, to be a winning team. But, given time and luck, those pieces are probably already on hand: Stephen Whatshisname and Bryce Somethingorother. That's why 2011 should be a fascinating season. With a half-dozen young players with the ability to become building blocks, the Nats need to foster a homegrown foundation before adding more fancy high-priced additions.

"We'll be a faster, more athletic club this season. Every year, we get better beef in our clubhouse," General Manager Mike Rizzo said Friday. That lapse into politically incorrect scout-speak captures the 2011 Nats. Everywhere you look, there's better beef with players like Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Roger Bernadina, Wilson Ramos and a half-dozen relievers who could honestly be called "power arms."

Unfortunately, when it comes to the core of any team, the starting rotation, the question is still: Where's the beef?

The answer is: The Nats tried to get it, offering free agent deals or contract extensions as part of a trade to get Jorge De La Rosa and Zack Greinke, which would have come to roughly the same amount of money that they actually gave to Werth. If all their winter plans had fallen in place, the Nats might've committed themselves to a quarter of a billion bucks in contracts.

It didn't happen. De la Rosa stayed in Colorado. And Greinke, amid machinations (and a change of agents in midstream) that the Nats still don't fully understand, passed up a huge extension offer from the Lerners and, instead, ended up being traded to the Brewers, still with his same old deal.

The Nats swung for the fences, which is always risky. They overpaid, astronomically, to make sure they got Werth. But they also saved $20 million-a-year by letting Adam Dunn walk away and trading Josh Willingham for a minimum-salary young reliever. They knew they'd get a new first baseman, either Derrek Lee or Adam LaRoche, for a sane price. That set the stage, financially, for Nats fireworks. They hoped.

"Do you know how close the Nationals came to going down the true big-spending path?" said a stunned former Nats executive. "If they'd gotten Werth and Greinke, too, then there's no turning back. I don't know if that's good. But you're committed to being a different kind of franchise for years."

But it never happened.

"There's no point going back and trying to figure it all out," Rizzo said. "In baseball, a hundred things 'could have happened.' You take your best shot and then move on."

Maybe, someday, the Nats will think they were lucky to keep the "king's ransom" in prospects they'd have traded to K.C. But you can't understand the current Nats until you grasp that this roster is Plan X, Y or Z. Why do the Nats have three catching prospects - Ramos, Jesus Flores and Derek Norris - behind Ivan Rodriguez? Probably because they thought one of them would be in a trade for a major pitcher.

Why is Espinosa now a lock to start at second base? Because Desmond wasn't part of any deal for a top starters and Espinosa's talent is so obvious that he simply has to play now, every day, even if shortstop is the position he's prepared himself for all his life.

Why do the Nats have an almost nutty number of high-strikeout arms in their bullpen - not only Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Collin Balester but also veteran Todd Coffey and fast-rising Cole Kimball?

"You think you're seeing big bullpen arms now," Rizzo said. "We've got 200 mph of fastballs still sitting down in Venezuela waiting for visas."

That'd be Henry Rodriguez, acquired in the Willingham deal, who topped out at 103 mph in the majors last year and Elvin Ramirez, who's touched 100.

Are they a polished collection? Of course not. But heat in the bullpen is a good starting point. "We strengthened a strength," Manager Jim Riggleman said.

What did the Nats end up with? A team that's much better defensively almost everywhere you look, but a lineup without any cleanup presence that even remotely resembles the classic moose of a masher they had in Dunn.

Is the Nats rotation a jumble of credible fourth and fifth starters, plus Jordan Zimmermann, who may be better than that? Absolutely. But at least they can finally be judged accurately.

For one more season, the Nats still get cut some slack, some excuses. But, finally, the days of low expectations are evaporating.

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